Waiting Game: The COVID-19 Crisis Also Takes Its Toll on San Antonio’s Day Laborers

click to enlarge MICHELLE DEL REY
Michelle Del Rey
Carlos Vasquez was eight years old when his parents left behind their village in Zacatecas, Mexico, 732 miles from the Texas border, and carried him and his siblings across the Rio Grande on a black inner tube.

A decade later, Vasquez, 36, became a U.S. citizen. That makes the mason stand out among the undocumented day laborers gathered outside a San Antonio Home Depot in the early hours of the morning as they wait for anyone willing to offer them construction work.

These days, Vasquez joins Ignacio, Joe, Saliaz and Martin — all of whom declined to give their full names due to their undocumented status — as they wait with their few possessions for someone to hire them. If there’s no work by mid-morning, the men head home again.

Before COVID-19 hit, the men routinely earned as much as $180 a day. But things have gotten tight, as they have for many of the people who would normally pay them for their work. Now, their income barely provides enough for rent, food or a new pair of work shoes.

Making matters worse, the pandemic has the Mexican economy teetering on collapse, igniting a financial crisis unheard of since the Great Depression. U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials worry that deteriorating economic conditions in Mexico and Central America could send a surge of migrants northward.

That would bring more competition for these day laborers.

On this morning, the first client arrives around 8 a.m. in a pickup truck, seeking someone to help frame a new building. Saliaz hops into the bed, and the vehicle zooms off.

The other men stand in a dirt divider next to a fast food drive-thru, waiting, hoping they’ll get as lucky as their friend.

‘No Loitering’

Two months ago, the men say, Home Depot erected a sign next to their old waiting spot that reads, “No Loitering Police Enforced.” In Spanish, “No se permite vagabundos se llamara la policia.” The men simply moved across the parking lot to the restaurant grounds.

Vasquez says the restaurant manager lets them sit outside, as long as they keep the place tidy. Their old spot is now monitored by around-the-clock security.

For some of the waiting workers, today’s breakfast is a can of beer and a cigarette — a little something to take the edge off. As the men bake in the August heat, gossip becomes a form of entertainment.

The men talk about one day laborer who used to haul cocaine around the state and joke that the man is crazy.

The talk seldom turns to how they ended up in San Antonio. However, some mention they only recently fled desperate circumstances in their home countries in Latin America. Others have been seeking day labor gigs at the Home Depot for two decades. For both groups, the work they get here provides their only shot at making a living.

Daily Threat

A car pulls up around 10 a.m. The driver offers $50 for a construction job. For a moment, Joe, who just woke up from a nap, stumbles over to consider the offer.

“Take it,” Ignacio advises.

Joe shakes his head. “It’s not much,” he replies.

In this tumultuous environment, Vasquez knows that as a U.S. citizen he’s luckier than the others. Unlike the undocumented men, he’s less worried about whether his employer will pay him on time or will call Immigration and Customs Enforcement. If an undocumented worker experiences wage theft, there’s little they can do without potentially putting themselves in danger of deportation.

It’s a threat Alfonso faces every day. The construction worker says he left his wife and four children behind in Mazatenango, Guatemala, four years ago for the same reason most migrants leave their families: a better life.

“I sacrificed myself for my family,” he said.

Alfonso, 49, trekked for two months through Guatemala and Mexico, until he reached the United States, paying his traffickers $8,000 for the journey. Like many migrants, he says his smugglers exploited him, quoting a lower price in the beginning, then raising it over time until demanding the gigantic sum.

“What could I do?” the short, thin-framed man said, looking down at his blue flip-flops as he recalled the ordeal.

Not Enough

Before COVID-19, Alfonso earned enough money applying cement to unpaved roads to provide his children in Guatemala with a quality education. Now, he worries he’ll be evicted from the home he shares with a handful of other migrant workers.

He pays $250 a month for a small room. But since the pandemic hit, he hasn’t been able to scrape together the rent money and now owes his landlord $700.
“There was no work for three months,” he said.

Due to COVID-19, the World Bank predicts remittances to Latin America will fall 20% this year.

Alfonso’s since been able to land odd jobs here and there, he says. But it’s not enough to pay the growing stack of bills — or send money to his family back home.

With no other clients showing up, Vasquez heads to a bus stop so he can catch a ride to his home on the South Side. Ignacio and Joe stay on, with a slim expectation that something might turn up.

For now, all they can do is wait.

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